When Grief Hits Home at Work

From the beginning of the American workplace, there have been workers in various stages of life and life events. All part of the 515860456 -- sad employeehumans-as-resources thing.

I’ve been through my fair share: raising kids while working; having kids while working, for that matter; getting them into college, then becoming an empty nester; surviving the end of their dad’s and my marriage, then getting them used to another …

But not until I lost my spouse — my kids’ zany, crazy, brilliant, life-loving dad and stepdad — did I know just how profound an impact the grief  event could have on work. And that was three short months after seeing my incredible dad through his final wrestling match with cancer.

I have a whole new respect for employers that choose to acknowledge and focus on the power pain can have on employees, and for colleagues and supervisors who’ve mastered the art of listening.

In fact, listening is just one of many helpful suggestions I came across recently in this piece, Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace, from Cincinnati-based Hodapp Funeral Homes. Until I went through my own nightmare, I honestly never would have considered the part managers, co-workers and HR can play in working to regenerate engagement and productivity in a shell-shocked, grief-stricken worker.

I’ve had those moments, fingers poised on the keyboard, when the words won’t come. I now know the fear, loneliness and incredible self-doubt, wondering if I can handle the same tasks I aced throughout my career in journalism and publishing, or the same projects around the house I used to enjoy. I know the frustration over how long it all seems to take.

But I also now know how helpful help is. And I also know I can now help others.

Judie Bucholz, a faculty member at Columbia Southern University specializing in human and organizational systems, weighed in on all this with me. As she put it,

“We know dealing with death is difficult, and yet, as an American society, we typically give our employees three days off to ‘deal’ with it and come back to work as if nothing ever happened. The reality is something did happen and three days is hardly enough time to acknowledge the reality of death, let alone deal with it.

“We cannot change corporate America and business, so what can we do to help those we work with [or employ] who are grieving the death of a friend or family member?”

She suggests the following:

  • Offering to take the kids for a day or for a sleepover;
  • Volunteering to do chores, such as cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, cleaning the pool, washing the car, etc.;
  • Sending gift certificates to favorite eateries, spas, beauty salons, etc.;
  • Helping with a project so the employee can leave early one Friday.

Yet, she says:

“Perhaps the best thing we can do is ask our co-worker [or employee] how he or she is doing and then take the time to listen — even if it makes us uncomfortable.”

And if those dealing with loss and grief want to quietly focus on work without talking, or silently space at a computer monitor from time to time, just let them do that, too.